Volatile organic compoundsVolatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that readily evaporateat room temperature, thus allowing the chemicals to be easily inhaled.
Formaldehyde and artificial fragrances are two such sources that have aubiquitous presence in hospitals. A study of occupational exposure toartificial fragrances found that health care workers had the highest rate ofallergic sensitivity. The fragrances are typically contained in devicesthat either aerosolize the chemicals into rooms or evaporate the fragrancesfrom a solid form, thus producing VOCs. Although the Food and DrugAdministration is responsible for regulating fragrances and other chemicals inpersonal care products, the majority of these compounds have not been testedfor potential toxic human health effects. Strong odors, fumes, andperfumes are also potent triggers of asthma. Formaldehyde, a knowncarcinogen, is used in pathology and lab settings and is contained inbedding, drapes, carpets, acoustic ceiling tiles, and fabricated furniture.
Artificial fragrances are used to address unpleasant odors. Purchasing low- andno-VOC products, which are readily available (e.g.
, no-VOC paint), is a key toaddressing this problem. Also ensuring adequate indoor air circulation, whichcan decrease the concentration of VOCs in the air, effectively decreases the”dose” of the chemicals being inhaled. SterilantsAs an example, ethylene oxide (EtO) and glutaraldehyde are commonly usedin medical settings for sterilization. Nurses and other medical staff areexposed while cleaning equipment and work surfaces. Although both of thesechemicals are powerful and effective, they are associated with serious humanhealth risks. Glutaraldehyde is associated with respiratory irritationincluding asthma, skin irritation and dermatitis, and eye irritation andconjunctivitis.
In fact, in a review of health effects of glutaraldehydeexposure, almost all case reports of occupational asthma were of endoscopynurses.1The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, producesa report on carcinogens that summarizes the latest scientific evidence on thecancer-causing properties of many chemicals, including EtO, formaldehyde,and others that are present in health care. In this report, EtO is also listedas a known human carcinogen. EtO has been associated with increased incidenceof certain types of cancer in workers with long-termexposures.
Additionally, EtO is an eye and skin irritant and also maydamage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.